Sometimes, as parents we get caught up in what we think the magic of a holiday should look like for our kids. Or maybe we get caught up in creating some sort of ideal experience for our children. But if we take a moment to pause and step into our children’s shoes, we may find that what they like and connect with is different from what we imagine and their preferences may change year to year.
This can be especially true for neurodivergent children. We may notice that as they experience infrequent occasions like holidays, they learn more and more about what they like and don’t like. This experience can lead to emotional overwhelm with increasing anxiety, excitement or a confusing combination of both.
Halloween, especially for neurodivergent children, can be full of difficult sensory situations including unexpected movement, unexpected sounds, crowds, uncomfortable costumes, and scary decorations.
…let go of judgements from other people and really think about your values and what you want your children to learn from these types of situations
Sometimes parents feel they have to justify to others (both strangers and people within the family) the way their child prefers to engage with the holiday. They may make excuses for why they don’t have a costume or why their costume seems inadequate or why they don’t say thank you or trick or treat. I urge parents and caregivers to let go of judgements from other people and really think about your values and what you want your children to learn from these types of situations. Do you want them to self advocate for what makes them feel safe and comfortable? Is asking them to deal with extreme distress for the comfort of others a standard you want to set? Is it about the personal joy of a holiday or is it about something else?
Your child’s neurodivergence is something they should never apologize for
As parents, we are our children’s first window into seeing how to deal with people who have inflexible expectations grounded in nothing but arbitrary rules and intolerance. Do you mutter apologies at rude comments? Do you offer excuses that blame your child? Do you calmly express your values around self care? Do you lash out with defensive “none of your business” retorts? Like many potentially tough situations in life, it is important to think about these things before you are in the hot seat and consider what you want to model for your children. Your child’s neurodivergence is something they should never apologize for.
Regardless of if your child is able to have a vocal verbal conversation with you, you should frequently talk about what the holiday means for your family using words, books, pictures and videos. For some children this may be the first Halloween they will be able to participate in since covid entered our lives, so really consider the meaning behind your excitement about this holiday.
There are many things you can do to better understand how your child feels about Halloween and to help prepare them if they want to participate. Below are some common concerns and questions parents may run into when planning for Halloween with their neurodivergent child and some suggestions to work with your child to help them enjoy the holiday in a way that lets them feel safe.
Costumes can be a sensory nightmare for children with tactile sensitivity. The cloth and tags tend to be extra itchy, extra tight or have pieces that dangle or tickle. Face paint and hairspray is stiff and sticky. If you’re really in tune with your child’s sensory sensitivities in this area and your child insists they would like a particular costume that you think will cause sensory difficulties, explain your reasoning. Show them concretely on the costume the parts you think your child may have difficulty with while also being open to letting them try.
Perhaps purchase the costume and let your child try it on as often as they want to wear it so they can see how they feel about it. If they recognize the sensory problems, work together to find solutions. Use soft fabric, hair ties or scissors to adjust it or maybe reselling it would be a better option. Children often change their minds about what they would like to wear for Halloween. Develop a family rule around time frames for when your children can make final decisions on costumes. Explain your rationale. Perhaps there is a strict budget for costumes and no one wants any last minute buyer’s remorse. Perhaps you have limited bandwidth for costume shopping and need your child to respect those boundaries. Thinking about these issues before October rolls around each year will help you review expectations and rules so no one is surprised and you can develop consistency with your reasoning ready to explain.
Children should get the choice for what they want to wear and put on their bodies
You can help your child think outside the box for Halloween costumes; perhaps they can wear a Halloween themed t-shirt. Consent is also important to remember. Children should get the choice for what they want to wear and put on their bodies. This isn’t an opportunity for you to get to play dress up unless you and your child have a partnership in developing the costume together. Consider what you are modeling if you blow up or pout because your child doesn’t want to participate in your family themed costume idea.
Recognize that your child may not want to wear their costume all evening or maybe at the last minute they decide not to wear it at all. Before you leave the house to trick or treat or attend Halloween events, help them prepare for this possibility by bringing back up clothes to change into. No matter their age, explain your preparation and involve them so they can develop this skill of knowing their own needs and having back up plans just in case it is needed.
Trick or Treating
Decide ahead of time what kind of trick or treating your family is going to do. Perhaps you’re going to go around your neighborhood, a different neighborhood or someplace like a mall or trunk or treat. Involve your children with the decision if possible, but regardless, explain your decision making process. Maybe the streets are too busy in your neighborhood or the weather is poor.
Explain to your child many times in the upcoming weeks to Halloween what to expect where you will be trick-or-treating. Watch videos, read books and talk about what you are excited about. Make sure to go over any rules regularly as well.
Rules such as:
- Always stay on the sidewalk
- Never cross the street without me
- No running in the mall
- We are not allowed to go through the door into people’s homes
- Remember, your body doesn’t like dairy, so don’t get the chocolate or malt balls
Or perhaps with covid you have additional rules:
- Make sure we sanitize between houses
- Don’t ring the doorbell
- We can’t eat candy until we get home
Some kids may have phobias around dogs barking or loud doorbells. If your child seems like they enjoy participating in trick-or-treating but have these fears, ask them if they would like to practice coping skills before the big day. Even if they don’t want to practice, talk with them about how these unexpected things may happen and what they would like to do when they are encountered. Perhaps they have headphones they can put on or a plan to change their mind and leave the house if someone’s dog is rushing at the door.
Other ways to participate (or not at all)
Perhaps your child doesn’t find the idea of trick-or-treating and dressing up appealing at all. As parents we should respect and applaud their self-advocacy. You can offer suggestions of alternative ways to participate such as handing out candy or decorating or perhaps just picking out what others will hand out. Another option could be helping them plan a sensory friendly halloween gathering, which could be an excellent way to practice using executive functioning accommodations. Or maybe your child doesn’t want to participate in the holiday at all and you can offer coping ideas if they find it scary or unappealing such as wearing headphones and teaching them the unspoken rules of Halloween like keeping your porch light off if you are not participating.
As parents we should respect and applaud their self-advocacy
There is an unfortunate trend where parents have their autistic children use blue buckets to signal their autism. Besides the sexist origins of using blue to raise awareness, there is concern in the autistic community about the use of these buckets being used to indicate a child’s diagnosis. There are many factors that come into play including consent from the child for revealing their diagnosis and the fact that it looks very similar to the teal pumpkin children may use for allergy awareness which can actually have life-threatening ramifications.
If your child uses pictures or other physical communication methods, make sure to review the holiday specific language. Practice how they can best communicate using these methods while out and juggling a candy bucket. Make sure to involve your child in the decision of what language and communication they want to use while joining the festivities.
Make sure to involve your child in the decision of what language and communication they want to use while joining the festivities.
There is no actual rule that says a child has to be below a certain age to trick or treat and if your child isn’t ready to participate in festivities until they are older, that is completely fine too! Unfortunately, some people feel that teens and young adults should not trick or treat which takes away from the merriment and feel of the holiday. Halloween is for everyone. If your older child or young adult wants to trick or treat, encourage them to do so while preparing them for any inconsiderate comments and practice this area of self advocacy. If any teens or young adults come to your home trick or treating offer them some candy with a smile and appreciate their joy in the holiday.
Halloween festivities often take place in the evening, which means a lot of excited or anxious waiting time for children. Those can be some pretty big emotions to manage through so remember to be extra patient as you answer “when is trick or treating?” for the 100th time or your child seems irritable. Remember to help them find ways to work through the situation: art, podcasts, squishes or video calling grandma to share how excited they are for Halloween.
Don’t issue threats or ultimatums for rules that they have difficulty following. Decide ahead of time which rules involve safety concerns. For example, running in the street or crossing without you can be a big safety issue, but empathize with the extreme excitement of the holiday. If safety issues become a repeated problem, empathize and make a plan: “I know you’re really excited about trick or treating but I don’t want you to get hurt by any cars in the dark. Let’s do three more houses on this side of the street and then head home. We can eat the candy we have and stay safe. We’ll try to do more houses next year.” If they get upset, again, empathize and don’t tell them not to have their feelings. It makes sense that they are disappointed: “I know it must feel really frustrating. I had so much fun with you and hope to have more fun next year too!”
Finally, reflect on what worked and didn’t work to better prepare for the next year. Talk about it with your child. These are great opportunities to work on self advocacy skills and help your child recognize and cope with big emotions. Check in with your values and family meaning behind the holiday while also recognizing that your child is a separate person from you who will have different opinions, preferences and feelings around Halloween.